A group foster home + abused and at-risk kids + tough love + junior staff nearly as troubled as their charges: The potential for cliche is everywhere in Destin Cretton's enormously engaging Short Term 12, and — happily — is everywhere avoided. What might seem on paper a cloyingly sentimental heartwarmer becomes, in Cretton's hands, a briskly believable, often funny, always invigorating and ultimately wrenching story of emotional fortitude.
The film takes its title from ground rules at the ungated suburban facility where 20-something counselors Grace (a luminous Brie Larson) and Mason (an easygoing John Gallagher Jr.) ride herd over variously angry and depressed teenage residents. It's a safe environment, with licensed therapists on campus, but it's designed to be only a temporary way station where courts and social service authorities can remand troubled kids for up to one year.
As we get to know the residents — among them, delicately featured Sammy (Alex Calloway), whose periodic getaway attempts send coffee cups flying as counselors tackle him midlawn; seething Marcus (Keith Stanfield), who's on the verge of aging out of foster care and expresses himself in snarled raps; withdrawn Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), who insists she won't waste time on short-term relationships because her father will soon rescue her — it's clear how scant a year's time is for stabilizing lives gone awry. And when counselors swap memories of former residents, the dangers of early departure from the cocoon come into focus as well.
Not that the counselors have a lot of time for storytelling, as they shift from dispensing pills and confiscating sharp objects to playing elder sibling and mopping up blood. The more senior therapists may call the shots, but it's Grace and Mason who are in the trenches with the kids — connecting, comforting, hand-holding.
"It's not your job to interpret tears," a supervisor warns Grace at one point, as if she could do anything less, given so intense a level of engagement.
As much as all of this sounds like a recipe for one of those upbeat, earnest, we've-got-to-help-the-children sagas, that's not really what the filmmaker has cooked up. Having worked in a facility of this sort, Cretton pretty effortlessly makes the ambiance persuasive, the conflicts convincing, the teens vibrant and real. He's actually making a second pass at the material, his short film of the same title having won a jury prize at Sundance in 2009. What's striking here is that he takes us inside the heads of the counselors, weaving their doubts and conflicts with those of their charges to create a complex, welcome-to-the-asylum, the-inmates-are-in-charge style portrait of institutional life.
He's a canny storyteller, getting the audience invested in characters and taking his time with revelations. He's also summoned delicately expressive and potentially career-making performances from his leads — Larson, who has slimmed down and grown up since The United States of Tara and is having a sensational run, what with 21 Jump Street, The Spectacular Now and Joseph Gordon-Levitt's upcoming Don Jon; and Gallagher, who is scruffier and more earthily appealing here than he is as Jim in The Newsroom. Other performances — particularly those of the facility's resident rebels, Stanfield's scared rapper and Dever's scarred recluse — are also affecting.
Short Term 12 admittedly traffics in melodramatic twists and turns — enough in fact, that it might easily have been little more than a densely plotted indie drama. But Cretton's sharp script and guiding hand have molded it into something more, a nuanced look at the effects of childhood abuse that manages to be at once harrowing and hopeful, intimate and cathartic. The film is a quiet sensation. (Recommended)
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. "Short Term 12" is a new film depicting life at a short-term foster care facility for kids in crisis. Brie Larson stars as the character Grace. She's on what's called the line staff at the center, and it's a job that challenges her physically and emotionally. Here's a clip from the film where Grace is confronting her boss about a girl with an abusive past.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "SHORT TERM 12")
BRIE LARSON: (as Grace) I am on the floor everyday with those kids, and last night that girl sat next to me and she cried and she tried to tell me the only way that she knew how.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) Grace, you are a line staff. It's not your job to interpret tears. That's what are trained therapists are here for.
LARSON: (as Grace) Then your trained therapists don't know (bleep).
MARTIN: To prepare for her role, Brie Larson spent time with staff at a real halfway house. She describes an intense bond between counselors and the kids they care for, but also a necessary distance.
LARSON: You have to keep a certain wall between the two. It has to stay very professional. You have to hug from the side and each kid you have to, much like a parent, you expect different things from them. And the tone of my character changes depending on which kid she's talking to because they all need a different voice and a different approach.
MARTIN: What was it like to shadow this woman and to come up against some of those issues, just even trying to navigate your physical distance with these kids?
LARSON: It's really a beautiful thing to watch. They are masters of a really delicate craft. Because it's this combination of using tough love and force and also being patient and allowing them to kind of come to you, not letting them push you around is a huge thing. Most of these kids have been so incredibly let down by everyone around them, and so they're waiting for these line staff or for their therapists to let them down as well. So, they push certain buttons in order to try and get a reaction. So, you have to have this really core inner strength but also be able to relate and have humor and love and try and warm them up to just human beings again, and that connections are not always just going to be cut off.
MARTIN: Your character's name is Grace. And you play her with this well-calibrated balance of detachment and engagement. It is such emotionally draining work to invest in these kids. There has to be a need to let it affect you enough to care but not enough to paralyze you.
LARSON: Yeah. I mean, that's the dance, really. The woman that I was shadowing I was so impressed by how she handled everything. She just didn't get rocked by these kids. I asked her how she does it 'cause she had been at that job for over 20 years. And she said you let go. I didn't understand that concept, I guess. I thought that being a selfless person was the ultimate idea of a human being and you give and give and give. I didn't have this balance between the fiction and the reality of coming home and knowing what was me and allowing myself to recharge so that I could go back the next day with the same amount of fight as I did the day before. So, I'd spend my day filming scenes and delving into this emotional character and then I'd go home and watch "South Park" and eat cheesy pasta and laugh. Anything that feels like the opposite of what I was doing.
MARTIN: Which gave you, I imagine, new insight into Grace. Because it becomes clear through the course of the film that Grace has had her own very troubled childhood. And she's experiencing the intensity of taking care of these kids on a daily basis and then she goes home and doesn't deal with her own stuff.
LARSON: Right. that's exactly it. That's the piece that's missing. Because for her, I think, she's already decided for herself that she's broken. And I also think that it's hard to accept that people can influence you and can change the way that you perceive the world and the way that you perceive yourself. We don't want to allow this idea that because a father has not been a good father that that can change us. We want to be stronger and smarter than that experience. And it starts to eat away at her because she just keeps throwing it back to these kids. And she can't continue to mother others until she can mother herself.
MARTIN: The film was punctuated with several really emotional scenes. Marcus, who is a young man who's turning 18 and he's about to be required to leave the home, and he is asked if he can shave his head before he leaves. Why does Marcus want this to happen?
LARSON: That scene is a metaphor for him of exposing himself in a way that he hadn't before. He's going to be aging out of this facility. When you turn 18, you're not allowed to stay at these facilities anymore. And it's a really scary situation for a lot of these kids because they don't have anybody outside of this facility. And the line staff are encouraged to not have a relationship with these kids or stay in touch with them afterwards so that they can find their way. And that scene is a moment where he starts to see himself for the first time as separate from his past and as this new whole being. And I believe it gives him a new strength for when he leaves the facility.
MARTIN: Was it clear when you filmed it that this would be one of the emotional turning points in the film?
LARSON: It was a really emotional scene to shoot. I cried through pretty much every take. My character would not cry but I couldn't hold it in. It was just a really heavy scene to do, especially since we were shooting in a really tight space. It was a really small bathroom. We're all very close at experiencing this thing together. That felt very moving.
MARTIN: You're 23 years old, is that right?
MARTIN: So, you're only a few years older than the kids who are portrayed in this film. I wonder what that was like to think that your life experience, while perhaps vastly different from theirs, the length of time that separates you is so short.
LARSON: Yeah. I think because of that, I felt like an older sister to a lot of them. A lot of the kids in the film, it was their first job and so there was a natural role for me as the leader, not just for Grace on camera but off-camera as well. And it was such a wonderful experience to be able to show what a positive energy on the set looks like and how it's a very strange concept when you're making a film to understand that it's an art project that's shared by about 100 people. And the performances are so much informed by the energy and feeling of camaraderie and teamwork and mutual respect that it's not just about them. It's about everybody.
MARTIN: Brie Larson stars in the new movie, "Short Term 12," in select theaters now. She joined us from our studios in New York. Brie, it was such a pleasure to talk with you. Thanks for taking the time.
LARSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.